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After the Fire: Finding Words for Grenfell

After the Fire: Finding Words for Grenfell

Reviewed by Clem Jackson

I’m writing this review just as the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has opened, with submissions from those who lost family members in the fire which killed 72 people; so it’s frontline news once again eleven months after the event.

The author, Alan Everett, is the Vicar of the parish of St Clement Notting Dale with St James Norlands, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, close to the tower. His book (9781786220523), a very personal account, is scheduled for release on the first anniversary of the fire.

St Clement’s was built in 1867 as a mission church to ‘the worst slum in London’. It is this sense of mission which comes through in Everett’s book which comprises three parts: Response, Reflection and Finding Words.

‘Response’ covers the period from early morning on 14th June through to the end of 2017. Everett writes how his first response was to open the church, put on the lights and light candles – welcoming all. He relates how by 4.30am there were many volunteers onsite administering water, tea, food (all immediately donated) and offering visible support to victims. This response was replicated throughout the local community, in sharp contrast to the response of the local authority and the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), responsible for the management of the Tower. He is very critical of the authorities, ‘the failures of the council, the chronic inefficiency of the TMO’ – even their attempts to stifle and shut down the immediate relief work the church was doing.

There is much more in this first part of the book which makes for a challenging read, including the less attractive behaviour of some community members and the intrusiveness of some of the media. Then there is the telling statement ‘Living with a daily view of the blackened tower was very difficult – especially for those who saw it each morning as they opened their curtains’.

This first part culminates with the St Paul’s Cathedral Grenfell Tower Memorial Service in December, on the six-month anniversary of the fire, seen by Everett and many others as a significant event in starting the healing process.

The second part of the book ‘Reflection’ might make for some difficult reading for many in the church. Everett makes a strident and, in many ways, valid case for the value of parish ministry. He asserts that the local church (and other faith centres) can ‘potentially have a significant role in a crisis – providing they have made a strong commitment to neighbourhoods, to the small scale, to life below the radar.’

He notes; ‘When I opened the church [on 14th June], I wasn’t beckoning people into a building that was in any way disconnected from the community… I was inviting them into a building with a tradition of service that stretched back 150 years’.

Everett says the Church of England is at a point where it needs to think very carefully about how to protect its ground-level activity. He adds ‘poor parishes need to be freed from the idea that they are a financial drain that the church can no longer afford’.

Given the rise of mega-churches in fantastically expensive buildings (not just in the C of E) there is a challenge to church leadership to think again about what being church means.

Part three of the book, ‘Finding Words’ is an attempt to ‘find words for Grenfell’ although as Everett points out, doing that so soon after the event is not easy. It is a ‘series of small chapters addressing different aspect of the fire and its consequences, almost in the form of linked meditations’.

There is much in this book which impacts but one of the most striking observations he makes is the symbolism of the blackened tower as a daily reminder to the community of the horror and suffering: ‘The tower has helped us to understand how distressing the sight of a cross would once have been [to the early church] – evoking brutality and oppression – before it eventually became an enabling symbol of God’s sacrifi cial love in Christ.’

This book will make you think, challenge you and hopefully stir the wider church to renew its mission to reduce injustice to the poor in our society.

I’ll leave the final words to the author: ‘This book has been a brief attempt to convey how badly residents were affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, how remarkably organizations have worked together, and how much there is still to do. It has also sought to offer a stresstested rationale for parish ministry’.

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